Commentary on Alabama Law and Society

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Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

School Funding

On February 14th, the B'ham City Council approved giving $27,000 to the board of ed to:

provide services to bridge the gap between parent, school and community and to improve relationships between home and school which includes providing monthly parenting classes/courses, workshops, seminars and a district wide yearly family conference for parents, adult family and community members.

Improving relationships between home and school is a great idea, but this seems like a waste of money for two reasons. First, whether it accords with reality or not, most people in the city do not think the school system is very good at teaching the subjects within its area of supposed expertise, i.e. reading, writing and arithmetic. So these same people are going to trust the schools to teach them how to be a parent? Second, how is anyone supposed to know if this money has been well spent? Is there any measurable goal in this description?

In my opinion, more schools is the key to improving the home school relationship. No child should be beyond walking distance from his school. Putting schools in the neighborhoods they serve encourages community participation. Further, schools should be small enough that the principal can recognize every student. That creates accountability.

Expensive? Yes. But not frittering away money on items like this one is a first step towards making real changes.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Hate Crime Hypocrisy

That is the charge leveled by this article.

The author asserts that if the recent Alabama Church burnings were actually Detroit mosque burnings, or San Francisco gay club bombings, then society would uniformly and loudly condemn the acts as hate crimes. That no such condemnation yet exists about the Alabama church burnings is explained only by hypocrisy. The author then makes the larger point that hate crime laws are "misguided" because they make "certain crimes more deserving of outrage and punishment not because of what the criminal did, but because of the group to which the victim belonged."

As to the larger point, hate crimes are not the only types where the penalty for an act depends on the status of the victim. In Alabama, for instance, if you and your neighbor have an argument and you shoot and kill him, you are guilty of murder. But, if instead of your neighbor, you shoot and kill the police officer who shows up to quiet the fight, you are guilty of capital murder. Penalties for the former do not include death, the latter do. That is only one example. We could also discuss child abuse laws. Suffice it to say that the status of the victim is always a relevant consideration when drafting criminal laws.

I am not arguing for or against hate crime laws, only pointing out that this argument against them is meritless.

As for the hypocrisy charge, it assumes that there is no valid reason for distinguishing between the three groups. But is that the case? Many factors determine whether or not a group should receive hate crime protection. Is the group a minority? Easily identified? With a history of persecution? I will let you apply these factors to each group mentioned in the article. My only assertion is that rational people could apply them to these three groups and conclude that yes, Baptist Churches in Alabama are different.

I am not saying these crimes were not motivated by hate for Baptists. Nor am I saying that if that is the case the defendants should not face the appropriate charges. I am saying that right now, there are explanations other than hypocrisy for assuming these were not hate crimes.

Building a Bigger Road . . .

. . . to solve a traffic problem is like buying a bigger belt to solve a weight problem. Or so I've heard. Nevertheless, the state is ready to spend who knows how much money to build an elevated toll road
over the infamous B'ham stretch of U.S. 280.

It is not really B'ham, but several suburban areas. And the reason for the current traffic situation is the earlier expansion of U.S. 280 to six lanes and the construction of I-459 south of the city. The expressways encouraged people to move to the 'burbs. Those folks then clogged the expressways so that now, at rush hour, it takes an hour to drive ten miles.

Building a new expressway just starts the whole cycle over again. We will spend a bunch of money to get back to where we are right now.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Way it Was

Recently found a book of old B'ham postcards. They provided a wonderful tour of the city as it existed in the first quarter or so of the twentieth century. This must have been a great town. Neighborhoods like Woodlawn, East Lake, Fairfield, Norwood, Highland, Mountain Terrace, and Glen Iris were filled with beautiful homes. Some for the rich (Glen Iris), some for the average (Woodlawn). All were connected by street cars. At the center were the city offices, businesses, retail shops, and churches of downtown. Parks and lakes were located throughout. Almost every picture featured people interacting with each other, at work, at their homes, in the parks, while shopping. The structure of the town was much more conducive to community than it is today, with its clogged interstates, far flung subdivisions and randomly placed stuf-marts. I found myself wistful.

I almost thought, 'this must have been a better place to live in, back then.' And for me, it may have been. But I am white. B'ham, and I'm sure most cities, was a much more social place seventy five years ago. But that society systematically excluded large portions of potential members for no reason other than race.

So have we fixed that problem? Not really. Fixing it would have meant inviting the excluded members into the community. Instead, I think, we just got rid of the community. Walker Percy predicted, in 1957, that the solution to the race issue was not going to be integration but depersonalization. In the south, public places used to be places of personal interaction. The town square was more than where you went to take care of business, it was where you went to meet people. So, rather than admit 'the negro' to the public place, and therefore to personal dealings with whites, the public place became impersonal. Now, we just go anonymously from home to work to store and back home. Social interaction is now planned, and by invite only. Percy closed his essay, "The Southern Moderate" with these words:

"Yet the growing depersonalization of southern life may not be such a bad thing, after all. God writes straight with crooked lines. If the shrinkage of social intercourse to patio and barbecue pit serves no other purpose, it might yet provide a truly public zone outside where people are free to move about in a kind of secure anonymity until the time comes when they might wish to be friends."

When will that be?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Sports News

This Sunday in B'ham, espn classic is re-enacting a baseball game from the era of the negro leagues. It is a real game, but using classic uniforms and equipment. That includes the bats and gloves. The home team will be dressed as the Birmingham Black Barons. The game is at America's oldest baseball park, Rickwood Field.

This should be cool, if for no other reason than Rickwood. It is a great place to see a game. This site has some great pictures and comments. The current Barrons, who played in Rickwood up to the mid-eighties, have a similar throw back game there once a year. It is always fun.

If you can't get to the game, watch it on the tube. You won't get to experience the stadium, but you will get commentary by Chuck D.

Intelligent Design comes to Alabama!

Well, a few lectures on it anyway. Open debate is always good, so I'm glad such a learned proponent will be discussing the subject here in B'ham.

Leaving aside questions about whether as a matter of policy ID ought to be taught in science classes, and whether as a matter of law it can be so taught, I have one central critique of ID. My understanding is that it essentially says life is too complex to have developed without divine intervention. The problem comes when we eventually figure out natural explanations for the things that now look irreducibly complex. If the complexity was the foundation of your faith, the natural explanation leaves you with two options. You can either deny the natural explanation, or you can lose your faith.

The problem, I think, is due to the assumption that natural causes and divine causes are mutually exclusive. I do not think God, nor nature, is that simple.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Let them eat cake.

Or something like that. In this story about indigent defense in New Orleans, the Baton Rouge district attorney's office likened the New Orleans public defender's complaints about funding to you or I complaining about not being able to eat lobster or steak every night. After recent layoffs, the pd's office has six attorneys. They are supposed to represent about 5,000 clients. Perhaps a more apt comparison is you or I complaining about not being able to eat at all.

Alabama also underfunds indigent defense. Even if you think everyone who gets arrested must have done something wrong (and most did) that does not mean they should all stand alone before the power of the state. The criminal justice system is a machine. It has no feelings; it just operates on those fed into it. If you are ever accused of a crime, the only person in that system who will ever treat you like a person and plead your case is your attorney. The attorney does more than just protect the innocent, he also makes sure the guilty receive no more punishment than necessary. Isn't that part of the meaning of 'an eye for an eye?'

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


That is all I can say about this article in which a Birmingham woman is quoted as saying "she had it better during the days of Jim Crow segregation because at least she had access to a colored public restroom and could sit on the back of a bus to get to her job."

For a more academic, and maybe more hopeful, discussion of race in Alabama, see this report.

Constitutional Conventions

Alabama just took a step towards replacing its current two-full-volumes-of-the-code-occupying constitution. It may be time to start paying attention to this debate.

In sort of related news, a federal judge recently argued that the country needs to hold a constitutional referendum on the 'right to privacy.' Anyone interested in an intelligent discussion of that oft-criticized right needs to read this article.

Did you know, for instance, that the rights to marry, to have children, and to educate children in private (or home) schools are all derived from the same source as is the right to an abortion: The right to privacy. That does not mean all these specific applications have an equal claim to validity. But, I think, it does mean arguments against one or more of them should focus on that specific application of the right to privacy, rather than on the right to privacy itself. Getting rid of the right to privacy altogether may have many unintended consequences.

Monday, February 20, 2006

If you're not for us . . .

you're against us. That attitude, it seems, is a primary reason for the rapid growth of private schools in Alabama. The executive director of the Alabama Christian Education Association has this to say:

"Most people I deal with tend to believe that public education is moving toward creating a secular, globally thinking person as opposed to educating a person with Christian values," he said. "It's education with an agenda, and their agenda is anti-Christian."

Of course, there are many reasons to send your kids to private school, and educating your child in your religious tradition is certainly a valid reason to send your kid to a religious school. What strikes me about the attitude summarized in this quote is the idea that 'creating a secular, globally thinking person' is seen as 'opposed to . . . Christian values' and even 'anti-Christian.'

First, that anyone could accuse an Alabama public school of being anti-christian is remarkable. See, for example, this case, describing the teacher's practice of taking prayer requests before each class.

Second, and more essentially, a secular globally thinking person is not a person opposed to Christianity. Such a person is an individual who understands that people have different religious beliefs, yet is capable of interacting with all those other people in a humane and rational manner. For someone confident in their faith, it seems that this attitude would only strengthen it. That faith would have been tested in the marketplace of ideas. Hence, it would end up stronger, and deeper, than before. And for those of an evangelical bent, exposure to other ideas would also aid them in spreading their own. They would be better able to communicate them.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Sally Ellyson . . .

the lead vocalist of HEM could make rocky top sound good. You probaby have to be from Alabama, or at least an SEC state, to fully appreciate that compliment, but no matter who you are you should enjoy their music. What a great band. Even better when seen in a venue like Workplay.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Third post

but the first from the house

It may be bad here, but at least we are not . . .

Arizona, where the legislature is considering a bill that would give college students the right to alternative coursework if they find the assigned work "personally offensive." The Volokh Conspiracy has the primary source, and some excellent commentary.

one of my professors once told our class that if college did not cause you to change your mind about anything, then you wasted your time.

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